Doug Shepherd and I were hanging there, suspended just above the roof of what was left of the Toyota Celica All-Trac, it’s wheels now awkwardly pointed toward the late afternoon sky in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
“Are you O.K.?” he asked.
“Yes,” I responded.
“Good, but don’t unbuckle yet” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“You’ll fall and hurt yourself,” he calmly replied.
At that I point I laughed, perhaps in relief for surviving what had just happened, perhaps at the irony of not being injured in the crash but of hearing the likelihood, which Shepherd, a veteran SCCA Pro Rally racer, explained, that simply unleashing the 5-point safety harness would drop me onto the car’s roof, where I’d likely try to brace myself with my arms and would break one or both of my wrists. He knew, he said, because he’d been in this upside-down position a dozen times before.
Shepherd lived up to his name by explaining the proper technique for exiting our positions, and also for exiting the vehicle, which we had to do through the driver’s-side window since what was left of my side of the car presented no such option.
And thus my welcome to the wonderful world of SCCA Pro Rally, which that year — 1989 — featured the inaugural AutoWeek/Toyota Rally Challenge, an event that ended prematurely when the semi-finalist driver and the AutoWeek motorsports editor/ride-along passenger launched into the air at 70 mph off a crest in the forest road.
As I wrote at the time, the flight was fine, but the landing involved a collision with a large and largely submerged boulder that sent us across the road and off on a 120-foot slide through the forest. On that slide we chopped down 6 trees before coming to a stop on the Celica’s roof.
I know the number of trees we felled because ESPN had a camera in the car and was going to show the tape later that evening on national television, so my first mission after escaping unharmed was to find a phone and call my family and let them know I was not injured despite what they might be seeing on TV later that evening.
Experiencing the crash was not frightening — we wore helmets and the car had been set up for racing with proper safety equipment — but watching that video was frightening indeed because I realized any of those trees might have come back through the windshield instead of toppling in some other direction.
Later that night, once back in my motel room, I noticed the scrape on the crown of my helmet where it must have come in contact with a roll bar during the crash.
Actually, the worst part of the experience was having to go to the local hospital and wait and wait and wait to be checked over — we knew we were not hurt, just as it was obvious that the guy who came in after gashing his leg with a chain saw needed immediate attention. But we needed a doctor to look at X-rays and to verify our health because Shepherd and I were to race the following day in the famed Press on Regardless Rally.
My assignment in the rally was to be co-driver/navigator for Gary Gooch who, fortunately, only needed to finish the event to win the inaugural SCCA Pro Rally Rallytruck championship. Gooch’s wife, Judi (they met at an autocross, and he gave up road racing and started rallying so they could be in a vehicle together), usually served as co-driver in his Toyota pickup, but she had to sit out the PoR because of a medical issue.
Judi Gooch gave me some co-driving instructions: how to read the route book (which she extensively noted for the rookie navigator), how to use the Zeron-850 Pro odometer/timer mounted on the dashboard, and how to relay information to the driver. For example: “In 20, over crest, 90 left, then 90 right,” means in 20/100ths of a mile we crest a hill and you need — immediately — to make a 90-degree left turn followed by a 90-degree right, and all while running at about 60 mph and in the middle of the night when the only illumination comes from your vehicle’s lights. And sometimes it’s not only dark but also raining, or snowing, or foggy, and sometimes you get into a blind corner only to find a competitor’s vehicle sitting crossways and blocking the road (which we did once and had to make a detour off the trail to get around it).
The rally includes stages, which are pretty much all-out racing sections on roads closed to other traffic, and transits, which use open public roads to travel from one stage to the next, and with severe penalties for speeding or other violations.
Fortunately for Gooch, all he has to do is finish to win his championship, because at one point his rookie navigator said to turn down what proved to be a dead-end road during one of the transits. We still made it to the next stage with a minute to spare, finished the rally and the Gooches claimed the championship trophy.
Personally, I was just happy that we finished with the vehicle in an upright position, tires touching the ground rather than pointed to the sky.